6 Enjoyable Books (Non-Comic Division) that Consist of Lists of Comic-Related Stuff
Author’s note: For the next little while, we’re going to get away from the usual lists about comic books to take a look at some books about comics. Never let it be said we don’t explore a diversity of topics here at Dispensable Lists.
1. 1000 Comic Books You Must Read (2009)
Anyone who knows comic fans inside and out will tell you that we are, first and foremost, a bunch of nerds. The second thing they’ll tell you is that we are irrepressible list-makers. Lists of books in our collections, lists of “gotta-have” books, lists of favorite characters and creators — it’s all part and parcel of being an obsessive comic fan. Then there are the list-makers who can’t resist making their own must-read lists, like comic writer and columnist Tony Isabella. A longtime contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide, Isabella organized his picks by decade, taking readers through 1,000 historically significant (and a few of his personal favorites) that have appeared during each decade since the 1930s (when the first true comic books came out). It’s a fast-paced read — no surprise, given the number of books to get through — but there’s room for a few asides and personal opinions; for instance, I bet some modern-day fans will be surprised to learn Superman was quite the raging socialist in his early years. Isabella is also kind enough to cast his vote for the single greatest comic of all time (the same book he credits for inspiring his younger self to choose comics as a career), and he also peppers the text with loads of fun facts. For instance, did you know that Black Lightning, DC’s first black superhero to debut in his own title, was created in 1977 by an up-and-coming writer named — shoot, I know this one…
2. 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide (2010)
These days, making the assertion that comics aren’t for kids anymore is such a tired cliché that pointing out the cliché is itself a cliché. But every cliché comes with a kernel of truth (to use another cliché), and the truth is the comic medium is no more child-oriented than film, television or any other format for telling stories — something the greatest comic artists have always known. 500 Essential Graphic Novels is Gene Kannenberg’s attempt to whittle the wide world of exceptional comics down to a more easily managed number of “must-read” titles, organized by genre (superhero, fantasy, war, horror, non-fiction, etc.) for your viewing convenience. What’s nice about this book is that it’s not focused entirely on the output of American publishers, casting a wide net in search of books that are stunning in both the artistic and literary senses. Another highlight: the author bio at the back that tells you that Kannenberg earned his PhD in comics at the University of Connecticut. I totally have to go to that school.
3. 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die: The Ultimate Guide to Comic Books, Graphic Novels and Manga (2011)
Britain’s Quintessence Editions Ltd. is the company behind the popular 1001 Before You Die series. After tackling books, albums, paintings, famous buildings, golf courses and beers, it was only a matter of time before they turned to comics. But they didn’t just focus on the comic books most of us are familiar with; samples of every art form combining words and pictures are featured in this book, from American and British newspaper strips to French bandes dessinées to Japanese manga to Italian fumetti to online webcomix. It might feel like padding to see a write-up for Garfield a few pages away from entries for critically lauded graphic novels like Maus or Persepolis (and despite the directive in the title, there is no way anyone could possibly gather and read all the selections, given the rarity of some entries and the many different languages represented within) — but it works well as a quick reference for anyone interested in seeing what the art form is capable of when it really cuts loose.
4-5. 500 Great Comic Book Action Heroes (2003)/500 Comic Book Villains (2004)
Here come the bad guys! And, you know, the good guys, too. This pair of books by Mike Conroy take an encyclopedic look at the great heroes and villains of the medium, with a focus on American and British creations (sorry, Tintin fans). All the A-list heroes and villains are here, of course, as well as a generous assortment of not-quite-famous names from Golden Age books and modern-day independent titles, so even if you know the stories behind Superman and Spider-Man by heart, you’re bound to find something new. For my money, the best features of these two books are the special sections that shine a spotlight on particular groups of heroes or villains; in 500 Villains, for instance, you have “Bad Guys, Big Brains,” a look at some of the brainier egghead types that have bedeviled our beloved heroes over the years. Although, considering how often these guys chose “getting clobbered by the Thing” over “playing the stock market and retiring to Aruba,” you have to wonder just how smart they really are…
6. The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide: A Critical Assessment (2003)
An alphabetical list rather than a numerical one, The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide is not just any comic guide. For one thing, there is not a dollar sign anywhere to be found, nor will you find any talk of a comic’s worth being measured by how much money you can get for it. Instead, it’s a portable version of every funny and knowledgeable person who hangs out down at the local comic shop, offering picks and pans for pretty much every comic title you’ve ever heard of (and a few you haven’t). While the Overstreets and Wizards of the world focus on seeing comics as commodities, Slings & Arrows offers its thoughts on which books are worth reading, heaping praise on the titles, runs, story arcs and individual issues that deserve it, and outright contempt on the worst the industry has offered. Example of the latter: “G.I. Joe and the Transformers (4-issue miniseries, 1987): A magnificent sermon on the concept of predestination as experienced by a rich and varied cast, and infused with the clash of the instinctive and the intellectual. No, hang on, that’s War and Peace. This teams mutating robots and all-American heroes to project a military project from the evil Decepticons and Cobra. It’s rubbish.” The creator index in the back is also a handy tool for anyone keen to track down info on any of the 5,000 writers and artists included in the text. The only complaint I have is that the most recent edition came out in 2003, meaning almost a decade of reviewable material has come and gone since. As far as I can tell, a new edition isn’t coming out anytime soon, and that’s a shame; we need more reference books willing to put the phrases “Rob Liefeld” and “catastrophic jumble of nonsense” close together, as God intended.